Note for Academics
Implicit Game Aesthetics (2): Costikyan’s Critical Language

Implicit Game Aesthetics (1): Crawford’s Taxonomy

Chris CrawfordWhatever we consider games to be, people have incredibly strong opinions about them. I previously claimed that a great many attempts to define games could be interpreted as value judgements asserting a particular aesthetic stance, and in the series of pieces that follow I'll examine a number of definitions of the term 'game' and excavate the underlying aesthetic judgements. This is clearest wherever a definite boundary is being erected, and will become difficult when more general claims are made. There is ample room for many objections to my conclusions, not least of which being the need for further research, but it is not a plausible retort that one of the aesthetics that follows is the correct way of interpreting the term 'game' – the very nature of this approach voids any attempt to establish a single 'correct' definition. As Wittgenstein remarked, the meaning of a word is how it is used, and all of these aesthetics relate to ways the word 'game' is used by different people. We may prefer some of these uses to others, but this simply confirms that definitions of games involve value judgements.

At the start I shall take as essentially unproblematic only two conditions used within game definitions: that games entail rules, and that games entail fiction (or, in the terms discussed in my introduction to game aesthetics, that games have both functional and representational aspects). Both these apparently foundational assertions are sufficiently general that when taken singularly they exclude very few things people would consider as games, and indeed, include many things that a great many people wouldn't consider a game. Note that even play activities that have no stated rules can still be formulated in terms of rules – when I play Fetch with my dog, I consider this a game, but my Labrador probably does not conceive of what's happening in terms of the rules I can justifiably use to describe our game. Similarly, the fiction in (say) Chess is very thin indeed, but I don't think it's helpful to claim there is none at all. At the very least, Salen and Zimmerman's Huizinga-inspired "Magic Circle" sets apart the activity of the game from other activities, however porous this condition might be, and in this sense allows us to recognise a fictional world. Besides, we will later kick these blocks away in order to be left with a complete (but rough!) model of the aesthetics of play.

Because their stances are more strident and therefore more interesting, I shall start with the definitions of 'game' provided by professional game designers, and later consider the more moderate positions advanced by academics. It is the nature of this project to approach definitions of games on the assumption that they embed value judgements, but it is not necessarily the case that a proponent of a particular definition endorses the corresponding aesthetic judgement (although for the most part I believe they would, albeit with some considerable caveats). Nonetheless, in terms of the process of uncovering implicit aesthetic positions on play, each definition is archetypal of a wider viewpoint that is been reflected in my player studies over many thousands of players. The individual proponents of definitions, therefore, are akin to spokespeople for a particular aesthetic archetype and I apologise in advance to everyone involved for any violence I may have done to your specific views through the process of excavation.

To begin with, there is no better example of my claim that definitions of game conceal aesthetic value judgements than the famous taxonomy of creative expression given by Chris Crawford (2003), pictured above. Crawford is keen to note that his terminology cannot be considered definitive, but the nature of his definitions are so rigorous that they bring most out most clearly the kind of aesthetic judgements this exploration is aimed at uncovering. His taxonomy is constructed as a series of questions, each of which divides activities into two classes (sometimes with a subjective judgement aspect that Crawford is forthright in recognising). 'Game' is an accolade attained only by passing through each of the "gates" Crawford has set up, which implies value judgements that at other times in the same book he appears keen to disavow.

The sequence proceeds according to the following outline. Firstly, the motive of the creator is considered. If it is beauty, Crawford terms it 'art'; if it is money, he terms it 'entertainment'. Since Crawford places 'games' under 'entertainment', games seem to be immediately excluded from art, despite Crawford elsewhere (1984) yearning for games as an art-form. However, he also allows that this first step could easily be omitted. The rest of the steps are as follows:

  • Within entertainment: "is it interactive?" – if no, it is in the same (unnamed) class as movies, books and films, else it qualifies as a 'plaything'.
  • Within playthings: "is there a defined goal?" – if no, a 'toy'; if yes, a 'challenge'.
  • Within challenges: "is there an agent to compete against (or the illusion of one)?" – if no, a 'puzzle'; if yes, a 'conflict'.
  • Within conflicts: "can you impede your opponents?" – if no, a 'competition'; if yes, a 'game'.

Thus, only those things that are interactive, have goals, include opponents and allow attacks against those opponents qualify as a 'game' in Crawford's terms. However, simply listing these conditions doesn't do justice to the value judgements implicit in Crawford's taxonomy, since by placing 'game' at the apex of this sequence there is an unavoidable sense of priority to this order. Note that if the result of the final gate had been a different term – say, 'battle' – the entire taxonomy could be seen to refer to the space of play and games. By choosing to give 'game' this highly restricted meaning, Crawford appears to not only assert a number of aesthetic value judgements concerning games but also a hierarchy of aesthetics of play. The steps correspond broadly to an agency aesthetic (interactivity), a victory aesthetic (goals and challenges), and a conflict aesthetic (opponents and direct attacks) – all three of which can be found expressed by other game designers, although rarely in so rigid a sequence. Furthermore, other game designers do not tend to give so much weight to conflict: Crawford devotes two entire steps of his process to distinctions within conflicts, making direct competition a requirement of games rather than a class of games. This oddly groups games such as Snakes and Ladders, golf and all golf-simulations, Ubongo, Race for the Galaxy, and Knizia's Fits and its descendents, as being competitions rather than games, despite most people's strong intuitions that at least some of these are indeed games.

Over the next few weeks, we'll contrast the aesthetic value judgements found in Crawford's taxonomy with those found in other game designers (namely Greg Costikyan, Raph Koster, Dan Cook and Jane McGonigal) as well as those found among academics with an interest in play and games (Bernard Suits, Roger Caillois, and Thomas Malaby) in the hope of creating a very rough map to the landscape of the aesthetics of play.

Next week: Costikyan's Critical Language


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I do with TypePad would ever figure out that I already authorised it, but... hey ho.

Anyway just wanted to say that I enjoyed this article and look forward to seeing where this series goes.


Chris, I am very interested in your philosophical analysis of other intellectuals' concepts of "game", and look forward to further postings.

(Normally I never post such a content-free comment, but given my enthusiasm for Chris Bateman's writing, the topic, and most importantly Chris Bateman writing about this topic, I had to make an exception) ;)

I'm somewhat confused by your assertion that definitions of games are value judgements. It's not that I disagree (we could also call them biases, perspectives, etc.), but aren't you in a sense ignoring the reasons and purposes people have for crafting definitions in the first place? For example, I might want to study a certain thing or make a certain point and craft a definition in order to circumscribe the point I want to make. In other words, there's often a point in creating definitions that's different/beyond "simple" value judgements.

Matt, Nathan: thanks for the words of support! Always appreciated, since most people just lurk. ;)

Jose: a definition posed as a tool for a purpose also includes a value judgement - in that case, the values involved relate to the purpose, and are instrumental values. However, when people attempt to define 'game' - as in the cases I present here - this is not often instrumental in focus, but generally epistemological or ontological depending on the nature of the boundaries being drawn. (Caillois might be an exception here - his definition was largely instrumental in nature).

My view is that whether instrumental, epistemological or ontological, values are in effect when 'game' is defined and thus these can be uncovered. As this serial will, I hope, demonstrate, what is uncovered by this process matches what I have researched under the psychology of play (i.e. play styles), so I believe this effectively collides player satisfaction modelling and game aesthetics in a new and potentially valuable way.

Best wishes!

Chris: presenting this series at a time when "gamification" slowly but steadily drifts into the focus of the larger design/communication debate is insanely good timing ;-) Today, a foundational theory of "games in the digital age" is more needed than ever! Especially, I am looking forward to your comments on Thomas Malaby's work.

The purpose of a definition is to structure a discursive field. Discursive fields are themselves play spaces, so the definitions we choose determine the shape of any play that takes place within the discursive field. Quite often our definitions are deliberately picked so they privilege particular moves within the field, coaxing our player/interlocutor to arrive at a predetermined location within the field. If you pick your definitions particularly well, you can create the illusion of freedom of movement while maintaining tight control over the play of discourse. This, of course, is identical to what we do as game designers when we lay out any system of constraints for a player to navigate.

translucy: Ironically, I see the theory I'm advancing as non-foundational (in the philosophical sense) - the irony being that despite this, it still serves the role as a foundational theory. I face the same situation in ethics, though - I think it might be the state of affairs in any situation where human values are in play. :) Won't get to Malaby until part 6, so hang on in there!

Brian: I thoroughly agree with your comments here. However, whereas game designers do not defend their system constraints normatively, they will sometimes defend their definitions in this way! ;) My goal in this serial is precisely to unfold the play space from the definitions so we can see what it looks like rolled across the desk like a map.

Best wishes!

"My goal in this serial is precisely to unfold the play space from the definitions so we can see what it looks like rolled across the desk like a map."

I'm eagerly looking forward to it ... .

I'm in particular interested in what you have to say about Thomas Malaby. I really like the way he terms games "contrived contingencies", but I believe as long as this notion is not related to the notion of connotation in semiotics, I believe it remains a too empirical approach, assigning substance to form. The contrivance he talks about seems to be an invasion of one "language" by another, so as to turn the former to function in terms of the latter. It's really sad that semiotics is perceived as having no explanatory power in regard to games.

Altugi: Malaby's an anthropologist, so you should expect him to be taking an empirical approach, although what I like about his work is that it takes a lot of philosophical angles into its stride.

"It's really sad that semiotics is perceived as having no explanatory power in regard to games."

I'm not sure that's the case, but it is the case that the number of people working on the semiotics of games is quite small and the subject doesn't perhaps get the attention it deserves. But I wouldn't say there was nothing going on in this space.

Best wishes!


Yes I like his work too, and I think his term "contrived contingency" is probably one of the most operational ones out there in regard to describing the very act of things turning into elements of a game. I think he's very close to the heart of the issue and he's giving us a fantastic concept.

But I believe the term could be further improved if it is unified with a semiotic aspect. I'm thinking here of Barthes notion of mythical speech that he used in his early works. He describes mythical speech as a secondary language (or discourse) contriving a primary language/discourse (for example real-life objects) for its own purposes. I think it adds up wonderfully with Malaby's approach, and expands this notion so that it can cover the dimension of games as signification processes.

The kind of empiricism we talk about here would probably object to the thought to speak of real-life objects and humans as semiotic entities or "discourses", however Jean Ricoeur has a very interesting theory on reading meaningful action as a discourse, and I think it is one of the theories out there that could help to maintain an aspect of semiotic value as we speak of "empirical" things such as real humans.


Btw, I could comment endlessly on why I think semiotics is perceived as having no explanatory power in regard to games, but maybe I'll do that another time :) Actually, it would be great if you include some examples of game semiotics into the series. That would give us a chance for more interesting conversations.

Thanks for this series. Wish you well, too! :)

Altugi: sadly, I'm just not as well versed in semiotics as you! And right now I'm having to get up to speed on narratology (one of my papers is going into a prestigious narratology book series) so it's just not an option for me to pursue at this time. But I'm interested in the topic, and welcome your interjections on it! :)

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